Category Archives: Problem Solving

Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.


Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

Cracking the Code on Engagement

“An experienced code breaker will tell you that in order to figure out what the symbols in a code mean, it is essential to be able to play with them…to rearrange them at will.” – Gero Miesenboeck

The Rosslyn Chapel was founded by William Sinclair in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland in the mid-15th century.  The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave and its architecture is considered to be some of the finest architecture in Scotland.  Among Rosslyn’s intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes protruding from the pillars and arches with geometric patterns on them.  While no interpretation of the patterns has proven conclusive, Tommy and Stuart Mitchell believe the symbols represent pitches and tones which reveal a melodic and harmonic progression.  Thomas Mitchell combined the code breaking skills he learned during the Korean War with a lifetime knowledge of classical music to unlock a piece of music hidden in the chapel’s arches.  After 27 years of study and research using cymatics (a musical system in which patterns are formed by sound waves at specific pitches), the father and son team produced a tone which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.

Mitchell’s success required dedication, careful analysis, and a bit of luck.  Most of all, it required Mitchell and his son to experiment with sand, sound, pitch and patterns.  We too must be prepared to play with a variety of tools and techniques if we are to discover the secrets of motivating people to participate in change.  Like all code breakers, our goal is to identify a “pattern of right behaviors” which will enable leaders to consistently inspire and engage those they lead.  In our attempt to identify the right behaviors, there are three additional skills we need to successfully crack the engagement code.

First, you need patience and perseverance.  Recognizing the pattern of right behaviors takes time and can often feel as if you are making little progress as your brain wrestles with seemingly contradictory information and attempts to rearrange the inputs to identify the pattern.  You may also need to retrace your steps and/or start over when one line of investigation ends with little to no results.

Second, you must have a strong familiarity with the language in which the code is written, so be prepared to become a student of human behavior and spend time in the trenches working with teams implementing change.

Finally, as you begin to learn the language of human behavior, you need to understand its inherent rules.  All languages (including human behavior) contain redundant qualities and patterns of frequency.  Learning how to read these patterns and recognize redundant behavioral trends can help you understand the messages being conveyed and the reasons behind them.

Code breakers approach complex problems with a mix of experience, ingenuity and curiosity.  Blending their knowledge of the code’s language with a structured approach to experimentation, code breakers identify the underlying pattern to crack the code.   By using a similar approach to the problem of engagement, we may finally be able to “crack the code” of motivating people to change their behavior.

The Golden Hour

“There is a golden hour between life and death. If you are critically injured you have less than 60 minutes to survive. You might not die right then; it may be three days or two weeks later, but something has happened in your body that is irreparable.” – Dr. R Adams Cowley

The R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center is a free standing trauma hospital in Baltimore, MD and is part of the University of Maryland Medical Center.  Founded by R Adams Cowley, it was the first facility in the world to treat shock and now admits over 7,500 critically injured patients per year.  More amazingly, while many of the patients are near death when arriving at the center, more 97% of the 7,700 patients seen last year survived.

At the core of the center’s success is the shared belief that they can save every patient.  This almost obsessive pursuit of an “impossible” goal connects the team to a larger purpose and creates a never give up attitude in each member of the staff.  However, a never give up attitude alone is not enough to generate the trauma center’s impressive results.  Many organizations create inspiring visions and believe they are capable of accomplishing great things.  What they lack is a work environment structured to allow each individual to translate the vision into actionable daily events through simple, repeatable processes.

The mechanism the trauma center uses to create of this type of environment is the concept of the “Golden Hour.”  The golden hour refers to the sixty minute window after people are critically injured when what happens will determine whether they survive and what the quality of their lives will be.  This concept drives everything the center does and has guided each decision about how the center will manage the flow of patients and information, what equipment and technology will be used, and the make up and training of the staff.

So what does the concept of the golden hour have to do with continuous improvement?  Everything.  At the heart of continuous improvement is creating an environment where each individual identifies and solves problems.  Like a patient, what happens in the first 60 minutes after a problem has occurred dictates whether the problem is effectively solved as well as the quality of the new process going forward.  Unlike the trauma center however, few organizations create daily processes to ensure that each problem is identified, understood and solved during this critical window.

To effectively create an environment with daily problem solving at its core, management should take away three lessons from the trauma center.  First, it is critical to set expectations for each process so that there is a shared understanding of what constitutes a problem.  Second, we need to create systems which allow everyone to see problems in real time.  Finally, through a combination of an inspiring vision and effective training, we must provide the motivation and skills to solve problems in real time.

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey

Design from Within

“The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the problem.” – Charles Eames

Design That Matters is a non-profit company who faced a problem with global implications.  1.8 million premature babies die each year from a lack of consistent heat until they have the body fat and metabolic rate to stay warm.  Despite having the technology to solve this problem, incubators are not available in most poor countries and can be cost prohibitive.  Further without the necessary parts, training and expertise to maintain these machines, 98% of them are broken within five years and remain idle gathering dust.

After researching the problem and spending time in the field, the team realized if they could design an incubator made out of automobile parts, the chances of sustained success would significantly improve.  The engineering to heat the incubator was not complicated and could be solved with automotive parts, the auto industry had the distribution channels necessary to deliver those parts to the most remote regions and automobiles are one of the few technologies that can be reliably repaired in rural communities.  In other words, by leveraging what already exists in these communities, the company designed a “right sized” solution rather than promulgating a solution requiring an unrealistic level of development in means, expertise and infrastructure.

I believe implementing a system of continuous improvement should be approached the same way.  Rather than approach the problem with a “one size fits all” mentality, we should seek to first understand the capabilities of the organization, its processes and its people and then build an implementation to leverage these strengths.  As the goal of any implementation is to inspire people to create a compelling vision of the future and own the challenge of attaining it, we must first create opportunities for people to experience quick wins and build confidence in their ability.  If the change process requires skills, tools, and resources not readily available in the organization, we risk the process grinding to a halt as our approach is neither implementable nor sustainable in the organization.  Like the incubator, our “shiny new” continuous improvement process will quickly break down and start gathering dust.

Creating Space for Change

Welcome to the Grand Cafe in Oxford, England.  The Grand Cafe was one of the first coffee houses to open in England in 1650.  With the replacement of alcohol as the daytime drink of choice, the English coffee house blossomed into a locus of learning and was crucial to the development and the spread of “The Enlightenment.”  The open layout and informal atmosphere of the 17th century coffee house gave rise to “penny universities” where virtuosi from different backgrounds and specialities came together and “conducted research” without the formality of the university setting.  “The coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate to read, as well as learn from and to debate with each other…” (Bryan Cowan).  Many of the innovations that developed during this period in world history have a coffee house somewhere in their story.

Like the english coffee house, the use of space in organizations can play a critical role in creating a environment which facilitates daily process innovation.  From the layout of the physical work area to the design of systems which expose problems in real time, leaders would be wise to pay attention to the flow of work, people and information when establishing expectations for rapid change.

When designing your space, let the flow of work drive the location of people and materials.  Seek to open up the space and make it easier for everyone to see the entire process at a glance as well as communicate in real time without physical barriers.  Create opportunities for people to “bump” into each other throughout the day and have spontaneous interactions.  Design collaboration zones in close proximity to the work where teams have the room and the raw materials to experiment with new solutions to daily process problems.

Above all, demand more from your work area than just a place to house computers and cubicles.  There is a magic dynamic which occurs when people are able to connect with their process and engage with other in collaborative activities.  The more successful you are at using space to help drive these behaviors, the more surprised you will be at the rate and impact of the changes that will result.